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experiential learning

HEC Montréal, which took business students through rural Quebec on a 12-day cycling tour, has won international recognition for its innovative way of teaching about Quebec’s industrial past.

On y va!

The command came quietly but determinedly from a young business student, pedalling with her class through semi-rural Quebec. Some had their school's name, HEC Montréal, labelled on their helmets. Some sported turquoise and purple HEC Montréal Tour du Québec cycling jerseys.

The 16 students were riding through a 12-day bike tour last August of Quebec's industrial heartland, an idea dreamed up by two HEC Montréal professors as a way to spark student interest in business history, a typically unpopular subject.

The course has since gone on to win international recognition as an innovative way to teach a side of business education so often overlooked.

The class visited venerable Montreal companies such as Molson and Bank of Montreal first, but the main thrust of the course was what lay farther down the road. The students, two professors and their bikes took a bus to Shawinigan to commence the tour, heading to Trois-Rivières, over to the former asbestos-producing Thetford Mines and then the Beauce region, all touchstones in Quebec's industrial past.

The whole idea behind rolling through green stretches of the province by bike was in part to feel the geography that formed Quebec industry, and to meet the people who have been part of it, rather than learning it all from a classroom course – if one was even offered.

Although HEC is a big business school, "We don't have a business history class. So we felt that it was something we should have," says Brian King, an assisant professor at HEC.

Dr. King developed and led the tour with fellow professor Anne Pezet. For him, the bike tour was a cheval de Troie, a Trojan Horse. The draw to attract students was the cycle tour, the substance was the history lesson.

"The real issue is, and I face this every day in my classroom, is that students are hyper distracted. They are always stimulated by 17 different things. And so, we said that we think they would be interested if they actually got out and saw history, as opposed to having a dry lecture about it, or watching a video," Dr. King says.

Vélo Québec, the bike advocacy group that also has a small tourism operation, was a partner, handling the logistics of routing and accommodations. The professors took care of course content.

The next course this summer will focus more on agriculture business and tourism in and around Saguenay.

"We try to do different themes according to different regions. We'll probably end up doing three different circuits of Quebec," Dr. King says.

The pace tended to be around 20 kilometres an hour, not too hard, for 30- to 60-kilometre stretches each day. It varied. Students would naturally cluster into groups, depending on their speed preference. "The profs were slowest. That was clear," Dr. King says.

Logistics were the main challenge, co-ordinating company visits with enough time to cycle there, and also enough time to cycle to the youth hostel or bed and breakfast where they would be spending the night.

Sometimes the company visits were even more fruitful then originally thought. For instance, Dr. King noted all the mining services and entrepreneurial activity that has replaced the closed Thetford Mines. "But we didn't get to visit with those people. When you're doing it for the first time, you're scrambling to get everything perfect. So, there's a great opportunity to make it better," Dr. King says.

"I don't think it was long enough, because we had to compress the time to visit many enterprises, to learn a lot. In my opinion, I would have taken even more time to take in more stuff," says student Étienne Lefebvre enthusiastically. A second-year student, he plans to take the class again this summer, with its new route running through Saguenay, and he will be helping with some of the organizing.

Had it not been a bike tour, though, Mr. Lefebvre says he likely wouldn't have signed up.

"I think the main quality [the students] all shared was that they were risk takers in the sense that they signed up for a class that had never been done before," Dr. King says.

Off the bike, the class had all the requirements of a typical university course, from preparatory readings and tests to writing individual papers and producing short documentaries in teams. But "it's incredible when you talk about the history of Quebec, then you actually go and bike along all these rivers that created Quebec [industry]. We went and visited the oldest industrial business in Canada, which is called the Forges du Saint-Maurice," Dr. King says.

The historic forges, situated by the iron deposits at Trois-Rivières, were central to Quebec and Canadian industrial history, before inevitably dying out. Without some sense of history, a business degree lacks that kind of perspective.

"You say to the students, 'Hey, when we talk in class about the business model not working any more, well, this is what happens,'" Dr. King says. "There's not much left, a couple of the old furnaces. There's a lot of history. Again, [the students] get a good sense of how geography and history create opportunity."

And opportunity often means physically seeing something for yourself, rather than merely imagining it in class.

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